Maintenance Technicians And Owners: It’s About Communication

Good communication and reasonable expectations are essentials when it comes to working with the maintenance tech who cares for your aircraft.

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From the time I started learning to fly, I’ve watched the odd dance aircraft owners and maintenance technicians do when it comes to fixing a broken airplane. The owner brings in the airplane, mutters something along the lines of “it ain’t right” or writes up a squawk in as few words as possible and departs quickly, expecting the tech to be clairvoyant and use some sort of magic wand to fix the problem. The tech makes “I want to strangle the owner” hand motions, tries to decipher what the owner meant and starts the process of troubleshooting the problem and fixing it. Often there is no further communication until the owner returns, finds the work about done, bothers the tech until the airplane is buttoned up and departs with it. The next steps in the dance include something off of a flow chart where the owner finds that the problem either was fixed, and all is well, or wasn’t, and brings the airplane back and complains. Further steps often involve owner disbelief at the bill, harsh words between the owner and the tech and the tech having trouble collecting for the work done. A few weeks later the owner detects another glitch and the dance starts again.

I recently spent some quality time with the manufacturer of an STC’d aircraft mod and listened to personnel who dealt directly with owners who have purchased the mod and techs who are installing it. There were some interesting stories regarding fixing problems and, more particularly, the interaction between the owner/pilots and the techs who were doing/had done the installs. The stories caused me to think about the years I spent representing pilots/owners and techs/maintenance shops where one had accused the other of improper actions. All of that caused me to come to the conclusion that the vast majority of problems that arise between pilots and mechanics over aircraft maintenance boil down to lack of communication to which unreasonable expectations are sometimes joined.

I’ve been watching the dance for longer than I like to consider: Pilot/owners expect techs to be able to perfectly fix an airplane on the first go-around based on a squawk that says not much more than “the airplane’s broke,” do it for free and have it done so the pilot can leave Friday afternoon for a weekend trip. By the same token, some techs are willing to schedule more work than they can accomplish in a given time, don’t give estimates for the cost of work needed and get authorization before doing so or surprise owners with the magnitude of the bill and then make the mistake of not requiring that the owner pay for the work upon picking up the airplane.

Pilots are not trained how to be aircraft owners when they learn to fly. To give them a fair shake, they haven’t received guidance on working with aircraft maintenance techs and often don’t know the regulations regarding maintenance—or know that they are responsible for their aircraft’s maintenance under the regs. By the same token, when getting the A&P ratings, maintenance technicians are taught how to fix airplanes, not how to work with pilots to troubleshoot problems or how to work with owners to let them know what the options are for fixing a problem, what it’s going to cost and to get authorization for work before going ahead with it.

What follows is a list, in no particular order, of suggestions for pilot/aircraft owners and techs/shops for bridging the gap between the two based on some years of defending each side in lawsuits, talking with aircraft and component manufacturers as well as maintenance experts and doing my best to be a responsible aircraft owner and pilot.

Squawks

Pilots seem to vie with each other to write up the most terse, incomprehensible squawk when they experience something wrong with their aircraft. “Engine vibration at 2400 RPM,” may be a good place to start when outlining a problem, but it’s only a start. Pilots, when you write up a squawk, provide as much information as you can about the situation and the circumstances—you’re trying to communicate with an intelligent person who wants to identify and fix a problem and who wasn’t there to experience it.

Was the vibration in flight or on the ground? That may sound silly, but I’ve seen pilots not bother to mention that the problem was only occurring while the airplane was on the ground. Provide details: at what altitude, temperature, power setting, indicated airspeed, gear and flap position, fuel flow, degrees rich or lean of peak EGT, CHTs—you get the idea. Think like a test pilot and record as much data as you can—what may seem trivial may be of great importance. Does the problem change when you change power setting or altitude? If so, how? What happens if you shut off a mag or change the mixture?

If you have an engine analyzer, download and print out the data for the flight(s) in which you experienced the problem. That seems pretty basic to me, yet during my recent talk with an STC mod shop about its dealings with owners and techs I found that in none of the dealings with owners and techs over glitches had they been provided with engine data on airplanes that had analyzers installed.

If the tech wants to talk about the problem you experienced, take the time to do so. As an owner, the time you spend going through what you experienced may save you money because it may cut down on the time the tech has to spend troubleshooting or replacing a part that is working just fine.

Fully Disclose

Pilots, if you tried to fix a problem that you’ve squawked, tell the tech what you did. A tech friend spent hours on a balky nav light only to discover the owner had found a broken wire and “repaired” it, but didn’t strip the insulation off of the wire. Had the owner disclosed, the tech would have looked at the “repair” early on.

If you’ve damaged the airplane, even a little ding, tell the tech. Bumping into the stabilator may be the source of the new vibration you’re experiencing.

Troubleshoot

Pilots, let the technician troubleshoot. Taking the time to narrow down the possibilities is cheaper than sequentially replacing parts until the problem goes away. I don’t know how many times I’ve had owners complain to me that shops are ripping them off because they want to troubleshoot something rather than getting in there and replacing the bad part. Sometimes I can explain that the tech is trying to save time and money; sometimes the pilot/owner is simply a tightwad and just wants to complain. In my experience, those pilots/owners never seem to catch on and can’t seem to understand why no tech within 100 miles will work on their airplanes.

Logs

Pilots/owners, have a current, electronic copy of all of the logbooks for your airplane so you can get it to a tech quickly and easily. Part of troubleshooting may be looking at the repair history to see if there is a pattern.

The logbooks for your airplane are worth from 10-20 percent of its value—that’s the amount that you’ll lose if you try to sell the airplane without complete logbooks. Think of those logbooks as you would several thousand dollars in cash. Therefore, the originals should be locked up somewhere safe. When maintenance is completed your tech will give you the necessary documentation on a sticker that you put into the hard copy of the logbook—you then scan that new page and add it to the electronic record you keep.

As an attorney, some of the ugliest fights I have seen between pilot/owners and shops were over aircraft logbooks. In my opinion, the practice of shops keeping airplane logbooks on shelves in the office should stop. It’s too easy for one to get misplaced; a fire can destroy them. I’ve seen more than one situation in which an owner refused to pay a shop’s bill that the owner felt was too high, so the shop hid the aircraft logbooks and refused to return them until the bill was paid. I’ve seen owners seek to have shop owners arrested for not returning logbooks.

Estimates

In almost every state it’s a law that if a shop is going to work on your car, it has to give you an estimate of the cost of repairs and you have to give the go-ahead before the work is performed. You know what it’s going to cost before you go pick up the car. To me, that’s common sense. However, too often, especially with annual inspections, a tech will figure out what’s wrong with an owner’s airplane, make the decision as to the way he or she wants to fix it, fix it, tell the owner when it’s done and present a bill when the owner shows up to get the airplane. The bill is always a surprise—either pleasant or unpleasant.

I have never seen an owner get upset when the bill was a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, it should never be a surprise. From my perspective, if a tech or shop has decided to buy itself as much trouble with pilot/owners as possible, the best way to do it is to do repairs and install parts without fully discussing it with the pilot/owner (what needs to be done and the options available) and getting approval ahead of time. It’s a true no-brainer—let the pilot/owner know what repairs are going to cost and get approval before making the repairs. And, hey, with email and text messaging being so easy, it sure doesn’t hurt to do it in writing to preserve exactly what was agreed upon.

I have had mechanics tell me that they went ahead because there was a time crunch or they couldn’t contact the owner or the owner doesn’t have any say in aircraft repairs because the mechanic signs them off. My recommendation for techs/shops is to make it clear, in writing, when the aircraft is dropped off that the owner is going to have to approve repairs or that there is a blanket approval up to a certain sum to do repairs, otherwise the tech/shop is asking for problems. Also, under the FARs, the owner is the one responsible for repairs, and she or he makes the decision as to what is done and what isn’t done—and that needs to be done in conjunction with the tech because sometimes the owner is not going to agree with the repair the tech recommends.

Sign Off

I’ve seen owners and techs charged with a violation by the FAA because an airplane was flown before the maintenance paperwork was prepared by the mechanic. It’s been a common practice for an owner to be in a hurry to get going after maintenance and take the airplane before the tech has done the paperwork. Too often the tech gets sidetracked and forgets to do it or there is an incident on that first flight that comes to the FAA’s attention.

For pilots and techs/shops both: no flight until the logbook entry has been made.

Payment

I’ve represented a number of small maintenance shops who have done work for a customer—usually a regular—billed the customer afterward and then didn’t get paid. Most of the techs have told me that it was a regular practice because they wanted to keep their customers happy. The problem is that it sometimes costs the mechanic more to collect from the deadbeat than the amount of the bill.

My recommendation for shops is to behave as the local auto repair shops do: Payment is required for the customer to get the airplane. In many states one of the few ways an aircraft maintenance shop can get a lien for payment for maintenance is to physically hold on to the airplane. Once they let the owner take it, the shop has lost that leverage. Plus, the shop is not licensed as a bank; why should it make loans?

Techs, require payment when the airplane is picked up. Pilots/owners, be prepared to pay when you pick up your airplane.

Test Flight

Pilots, techs are human, they can make mistakes. That’s why the first flight after maintenance is a higher than normal risk flight. On those flights I’ve had a main gear only partially retract and a total electrical system failure. A friend had the right main of his Saratoga SP jam in the up position due to an improperly reinstalled gear door. I’ve looked at any number of accident reports involving first flight after maintenance departures into IMC and/or at night in which there was a crash because of something that had been done wrong during maintenance.

A safety suggestion: Once the paperwork is done, make a solo, day, VFR flight before doing anything more ambitious with the airplane—especially before putting your family in it.

Postflight Inspection

Anyone who has flown for any length of time has experienced the broken-airplane-on-Friday-afternoon-with-the-family syndrome. A number of techs who I respect have told me that many of such problems involved something that actually broke on the previous flight. They suggest, and I agree, that a postflight inspection may be more important than a preflight inspection because it may catch a problem and give you lots of time to get it fixed so you can launch on Friday afternoon. A friend of mine is a former astronaut; I’ve noticed that he always does a postflight inspection on his Bonanza—I figure he knows what he’s doing.

While the idea may make some pilots uncomfortable (and it shouldn’t), techs I respect suggest a mag check just before starting your descent for landing. The ignition system is most stressed at altitude and a mag check before letting down is more likely to uncover an incipient problem than a mag check prior to takeoff. It also gives you time to get the problem fixed before you want to go flying again.

Pilots/owners and techs/shops benefit each other. If history is any indication, both sides making an effort to communicate effectively and recognize that nobody is perfect will go a long way toward making the process of aircraft maintenance go smoothly and efficiently.

Rick Durden in an aviation attorney who holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.

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